what would it look like if we lived in a black and white world?

At just the right time of day, into the room through a tiny hole in the blinds shone a bright ray of light. Cascading into the space, a stream of white light. His curiosity overcame him, and placing a prism at the end of this streak all of a sudden, the light shattered and a coloured image of the sun was projected across the wall. A rainbow.




This man was Newton, although after observing the glint of rainbow upon his wall two theories still faced him. Either the white light was pure and the prism used polluted the light thus producing the colours or, the white light was being split into the colours. Despite the latter being more controversial as white light was thought to be pure, it ended up being true. 


But in order to solve this question he decided to do something no one before him had. Newton placed a second prism in the path of one of the colours produced from the original ray. If it was a result of the prism, another rainbow would be displayed. But another rainbow was not to be seen. The blue remained blue and the red remained red.


Humanity has always been intrigued with colour, the way we use it and how it is involved in our everyday life. However, its implication in our life goes much deeper than simply choosing a favourite colour. Colour has also been employed to explain the process of understanding and forming knowledge, for example we consider the thought experiment originally put forward by Frank Jackson. Mary is a scientist who is an expert in colour, the understanding of how colour works and how we perceive colour, however, she has spent her entire life in a black and white room. Now the question is, if she was to come out of the room into a colour world, would she have “learnt” anything new. The argument here being it is impossible to have just a physical knowledge of the world, there exists a necessity to have experienced it as well.


This idea of the necessity of experiencing colour is highlighted by Iliad and Odyssey written by Greek poet Homer paints an interesting example of this and prompts us to question the perception and origins of colour. In these famous texts, his utilisation of language is peculiar, describing “black blood” and “wine dark sea”, being two of the many unexplainable uses of colour description. But upon reading these books, his excessive use of black and white quickly becomes apparent being found about 170 and 100 times respectively. But then something really strange happens. Red is mentioned only 13 times. Yellow, under 10. Green, also under 10. But if you search for blue, you will not find it.


Now, it may be a little far-fetched to suggest he lived in a black and white world but if we think about it blue is in fact, a relatively rare colour in nature. Blue food? Blue animals? And a lot of our blue plants are in fact artificially made. In Homer’s time there was no purpose for the word ‘blue’ to exist, and so it didn’t. They would have still been able to see blue, however, it was not until it became categorised that it became a shared experience. Blue definitely existed, however, it was a product of our imagination until we could define it. 


Two linguists Berlin and Kay defined an evolution in the language we use to define colour, there is an order that colours are added to languages. If a language has just 2 colours, these will be black and white. If a language has 3, then the next added will be red. If it has 4 then it will be black, white, red, and either green or yellow (but not both) and then if the language has 5 it will be black, white, red, green and yellow. This by extension maps to the necessity of colour being used to describe objects as the defining factor of its existence in a language.


These peculiar beginnings of colour are particularly interesting to consider, but can be extended into other questions. Once we give something a name, does it become easier or more difficult to explore. Does that simple act of classifying limit the knowledge we are capable of discovering because we have just put it ‘inside a box’? And does this necessity of experience in order to have knowledge make it appear different?

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